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Intel-Based iMac and MacBook Pro Ship Earlier than Expected

With his usual panache, Steve Jobs announced the new Intel-based Macs at Macworld Expo last week, bringing Intel CEO Paul Otellini on stage in a chip-fabrication "bunny" suit and airing an ad about "setting the Intel chip free" after being "trapped inside PCs performing dull little tasks." With the announcement, Apple anointed the Intel Core Duo processor as the processor of choice, installing it in the familiar looking iMac and in a new laptop dubbed the MacBook Pro. Whether Apple sticks with the Core Duo for future Macs remained unsaid, but Jobs promised that Apple would transition the entire Mac product line to Intel processors by the end of 2006.



Intel-Based iMac — The new iMac features most of the same basic specs and prices as the current models of the iMac G5, but with Intel Core Duo processors running at 1.83 GHz and 2.1 GHz. The dual-core processors (two processors on a single chip) provide significantly improved performance, according to Apple – up to two to three times faster than the current iMac G5s. Needless to say, that performance increase won’t be applied across the board, but that level of improvement will be incredibly welcome to those too-accustomed to the spinning pizza of death. One welcome improvement is an ATI Radeon X1600 graphics card with 128 MB of memory. In addition to appearing faster than its predecessor, the new card finally adds the capability to use an additional monitor in extended desktop (versus mirrored) capacity in the iMac line.

MacBook Pro — Introduced with the now-trademark phrase "One more thing…" Steve Jobs also took the wraps off Apple’s new Intel-based laptop, awkwardly called the MacBook Pro, which Apple expects will start shipping in February 2006; pre-orders started pouring into the Apple Store right after the keynote, making it largely unavailable for hours. As Jobs noted, the "Power" is no longer appropriate without the PowerPC chip (even though PowerBook preceded that processor), and he has wanted to get "Mac" into the name. This leads to some speculation as to the naming of the Intel-chip versions of Apple’s professional tower machines; without "Power" and "G5," we’re left with "Mac". Although MacBook Pro reads fine in print, it’s quite clumsy to say, and opinion about it at the show was almost universally negative.

The two models of the MacBook Pro also rely on Intel Core Duo processors, one running at 1.67 GHz for $2,000 and the other at 1.83 GHz for $2,500. The new processors reportedly provide four to five times the performance of the current top-of-the line PowerBook G4. Both models sport a 15.4-inch LCD screen that is reportedly as bright as the Apple Cinema Displays, though at a slightly lower resolution (1440 by 900 pixels) than the PowerBook G4 (1440 x 960 pixels). The graphics processor is an ATI Mobility Radeon X1600 with either 128 MB or 256 MB of GDDR3 memory. The MacBook Pro is 1 inch (2.5 cm) thick, reportedly "a hair thinner" than the current 17-inch PowerBook G4, and weighs 5.6 pounds (2.5 kg).

But unlike the new iMac, which shares nearly the same specs as the current generation, the MacBook Pro adds a number of features to the current PowerBook feature list. Most notable are a built-in iSight for on-the-go video conferencing, an infrared sensor that works with the included Apple Remote and Front Row software for controlling media playback, and a new patent-pending MagSafe power connector that holds the power plug in with magnets, eliminating the fear that someone will trip over your power cable and pull your computer to the floor. The power plug has a green LED on the top that lights up when the plug is connected to the power jack. Because the aluminum case around the jack isn’t magnetic (or doesn’t exert any real force), the plug feels like it’s sucked in tight. It requires some real effort to disconnect the plug.

Other standard features include the backlit keyboard with ambient light sensor, the scrolling trackpad, the Sudden Motion Sensor (which Apple has patented), DVI video out that can run the Apple 30-inch Cinema Display, digital optical and analog audio in and out, AirPort Extreme, Bluetooth 2.0+EDR, two USB 2.0 ports and one FireWire 400 (but not FireWire 800) port. Surprisingly, the MacBook Pro’s SuperDrive writes at 4x speed instead of the 8x speed of the PowerBook G4.

ExpressCard Slot Supplements, Replaces FireWire 800 — The MacBook Pro will be the first model to feature an ExpressCard slot (instead of a PC Card slot), which is a smaller and more versatile interface to the PCI-Express serial standard. The card slot handles one lane of traffic, which is 250 MB/s or about 2 Gbps. Apple vice president David Moody confirmed in a briefing that Apple thought the best way to provide performance and flexibility was not to include FireWire 800 as a fixed port on the models.

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Instead, with 2 Gbps of bandwidth from the slot, an ExpressCard could, for instance, offer two simultaneous FireWire 800 ports that could run at full speed, supporting an extremely fast set of RAID 0 (striped) disks, for instance, with four disks being striped in an A, B, C, D fashion for a total throughput of 1.6 Gbps, limited only by the disks’ read and write speeds.

While the PC Card and CardBus slots found in PowerBooks and other laptops have aged poorly, finding little use except for advanced wireless cards (PC only, typically) and cellular data cards, it’s likely that the extremely high throughput of the ExpressCard slot will result in more options for moving data around.

Because the MacBook Pro can support a 30-inch Apple display, the obvious notion of a second monitor supported by an ExpressCard adapter makes no sense. But a third monitor? You got it.

Apple Also Adds 802.11a Wireless Networking — Several sources public and private are noting that the new iMac and MacBook Pro support the 802.11a flavor of Wi-Fi (although neither the AirPort Extreme nor AirPort Express base stations do). 802.11a works very much like the 802.11g that Apple dubbed AirPort Extreme, but uses the 5 GHz frequency band, which is unlicensed in the U.S. and several other countries, allowing it to be broadly used. AppleInsider has a report with a number of details, although some of the analysis about 802.11a was true in 2003, but not since 2004.


802.11a was declared dead by Steve Jobs back in January 2003 when he introduced AirPort Extreme, and it seemed rather dead at the time. Ironically, the advantage of 802.11a is that it has no backwards compatible mode with the older, slower 802.11b standard. 802.11b and g work in the 2.4 GHz band, and 802.11b runs at a maximum of 11 Mbps of throughput, or a net of about 5 Mbps. 802.11g has a maximum 54 Mbps, or a net of about 20 to 30 Mbps depending on add-ons and other factors.

The reason that the lack of compatibility with 802.11b is an advantage is that a network that sports both b and g adapters has worse performance than a g-only or any 802.11a network. The older "b" devices bring down the whole network, reducing the amount of shared airtime available for faster transmission. Because 802.11a uses the 5 GHz band at the same power levels for indoor use, signals propagate less far, although they can penetrate objects more effectively. For indoor use with one base station, 802.11a has no particular advantage.

For dense company and academic use, however, it makes a lot of sense to use 802.11a because by having smaller clouds of usage around each access point, you can be assured that fewer users connect to it. 802.11a also has 8 indoor channels (and 4 outdoor ones) that don’t overlap frequencies compared to just 3 in 802.11b/g in the U.S. (and four in some countries). Better, 802.11a’s 5 GHz band will have additional channels available in the near future due to a deal with the U.S. military that will free up more civilian use. As a result, 802.11a has emerged in corporations and universities as a preferred tool for deploying voice over IP (VoIP), whether for campus calling or Internet telephony (VoIP to a gateway out to the public switched telephone network).

This 802.11a support isn’t a remarkable breakthrough, and is in fact likely merely a side effect of Apple switching to Wi-Fi chips from Atheros, replacing the Broadcom chips that previously enabled AirPort Extreme capabilities. But whether or not it’s even intentional (Apple says nothing about 802.11a support on spec sheets), even minimal support eliminates an obstacle in using Macs in certain companies and schools.

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